You have to wonder what President Bush would have made of the image — had he been shown the tape — of Saddam Hussein being strung up by a bunch of masked toughs, while all around the small crowd in the room could be heard victoriously chanting the name of Moqtada Sadr. (For an excellent description of the events and translation of what was being said, see my friend Nir Rosen’s great post great post at Iraqslogger.com, a daily news and analysis web site covering all things Iraq that he helped found — and is well worth bookmarking. In a symbolic tribute to just what the U.S. has achieved in Iraq, Saddam was essentially killed by a lynch mob of his enemies — indeed, one reason the current Iraqi government was in such a hurry to string him up was that the Sadr-Maliki alliance wanted the credit, over Shiite rivals, for slaying the former tyrant.
Amid all of this, we’re told, the Bush Administration is “making good progress” towards formulating a new Iraq policy. No doubt, although it’s a relatively safe bet that nothing they’re planning to do will reverse the slide. Saddam’s grim end merely confirms what has long been obvious: That sectarianism is the organizing principle of Iraqi society now, and that the United States no longer has any control over political events in Iraq.
No question the Saddam execution is viewed through the sectarian prism, and will only exacerbate the civil war — indeed, the U.S. could not have done a better job of ensuring his lionization in the eyes of Sunni Arabs throughout the region. (Not the first time the U.S. has given Saddam a leg-up, of course — Juan Cole offers an excellent summary of the long history of U.S. complicity in putting Saddam in power and keeping him there.) But the fact that he was executed now against the wishes of the U.S. is a perfect illustration of what the U.S. has created in Iraq — a political system over which it has no control, in which the leading elements are ultimately hostile to U.S. regional ambitions (although they’re willing and eager to use U.S. military support to their own political and sectarian ends), and which simply cannot be made to conform to U.S. goals and strategies.
Washington has made no secret of its frustration at the refusal of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to authorize a crackdown on the sectarian militia of his ally, Moqtada Sadr, and to marginalize the anti-American rabble-rouser — and also his refusal to do anything meaningful to coax the Baathists in the insurgency back into the fold.
Of course, before that the U.S. was equally frustrated with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and backed (or was it initiated?) efforts to get him removed (which brought Maliki to power, when the U.S. was hoping to get SCIRI’s Adel Abd’el-Mahdi into the job). And so the U.S. has been consorting with all and sundry in the hope of getting SCIRI, ironically the most pro-Iranian of all the Shiite parties but which appeals to the U.S. because it has largely cooperated and shares an enmity for Moqtada Sadr, to either take over the leadership of the Shiite Alliance or else to break with it and set up a new government in alliance with the Kurds and Sunnis. For some reason, the U.S. had convinced itself that they had the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for such a move, so when he nixed it and anything else that divides the Shiites, it became clear that the (frankly bizarre) idea of turning the longtime Iranian asset SCIRI into a pliant U.S. client regime in Baghdad quietly collapsed. Just for good measure, two of the Iranian officials arrested last week by U.S. forces in Baghdad accused of plotting attacks on Americans were picked up inside the compound of SCIRI leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim, who was being feted at the White House only two weeks earlier.
While the most likely new course to be announced by Bush in the couple of days is “surging” U.S. troops in Iraq, i.e. sending a few thousand more to help secure Baghdad. But that really is just a case of “staying the course,” because there’s no sign of any change in the political direction of the Iraqi government, without which sending more U.S. troops is pointless, or worse. The Shiite political leadership wants the troops to fight the Sunni insurgents; the Sunni politicians want the troops to protect them from the Shiite death squads — both communities remain sharply antagonistic to the U.S. presence.
In a thoughtful analysis of the Iraq Study Group report, the International Crisis Group makes clear the logical conclusion from the evidence presented in the study — although which could not possibly be made explicit in its conclusions without making Bush and Blair sound foolish:
All Iraqi actors who, one way or another, are involved in the country’s internecine violence must be brought to the negotiating table and pressed to accept the necessary compromises. That cannot be done without a concerted effort by all Iraq’s neighbours, which in turn cannot be done if their interests are not reflected in the final outcome. If Iraq can be saved at this late date, it will require three ambitious and interrelated steps:
A new forceful multilateral approach that puts real pressure on all Iraqi parties. The Baker-Hamilton report is right to advocate a broad International Support Group; it should comprise the five permanent Security Council members and Iraq’s six neighbours. But its purpose must not be to support the Iraqi government. It must support Iraq, which means pressing the government, along with all other constituencies, to make necessary compromises. The government and security forces should not be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered. They are but one among many parties to the conflict and not innocent of responsibility for much of the trouble. It also means agreeing on rules of conduct and red-lines for third-party involvement. Sustained multilateral diplomacy, not a one-off international conference is needed. A conference of all Iraqi and international stakeholders to forge a new political compact. This is not a military challenge in which one side needs to be strengthened and another defeated. It is a political challenge in which new consensual understandings need to be reached. A new, more equitable and inclusive national compact needs to be agreed upon by all relevant actors, including militias and insurgent groups, on issues such as federalism, resource allocation, de-Baathification, the scope of the amnesty and the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. This can only be done if the International Support Group brings all of them to the negotiating table, and if its members steer their deliberations, deploying a mixture of carrots and sticks to influence those on whom they have particular leverage. A new U.S. regional strategy, including engagement with Syria and Iran, end of efforts at regime change, revitalisation of the Arab-Israeli peace process and altered strategic goals. Mere engagement of Iraq’s neighbours will not do; Washington must clearly redefine its objectives in the region to enlist regional, and particularly Iranian and Syrian help. The goal is not to bargain with them, but to seek compromise agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one’s first choice, but with which all can live.
That’s what the grownups would do. And the Bush Administration has made clear it won’t follow grownup advice. Instead, it plans to send more troops ostensibly to shore up a phantom fledgling democratic national unity government under attack by extremists (many of whom, in reality, are actually part of the government and its security forces).
The moment the U.S. lost control of the process was when it first conceded to democratic elections to choose an Iraqi government. This is often mistakenly attributed to misguided missionary zeal on the part of the president: In reality, it was demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who made clear that J. Paul Bremer’s plans to have a constitution draw up by a government of his own choosing weren’t going to fly, and unless it was an elected government, the Shiites would rebel.
It takes one to know one: My favorite moment of the whole Bush tenure came in this Dec. 2004 Soviet-style awarding of the Medal of Honor to former CIA chief George Tenet, Iraq war commander Gen. Tommy Franks, and former Iraq viceroy J. Paul Bremer for the “pivotal role” they had played in the “great events” in Iraq. Yes, yes, I know, I also wondered whether it was April 1 when I first read it…
Once Iraqis could vote, the leaders the U.S. had attempted to install (from Chalabi to Iyad Allawi) were marginalized, and a number of them moved back to London. Those chosen by the electorate have proven unwilling to implement the U.S. strategy for holding Iraq together. Saddam’s death confirms how little control the U.S. now has over political events in Iraq. And that makes the number of troops it fields on the ground largely irrelevant to the outcome — except, of course, if the U.S. was willing to treble the number of troops it has there now and seize direct political control again. But even if it had the political will, it doesn’t have enough troops to do that.
The problem, I think, in part derives from the fact that Cheney-Bush have not yet reconciled with the inevitability of quitting Iraq — I suspect that they still see those massive permanent bases built in Iraq playing the long-term role originally envisaged in the invasion (Jay Garner compared it to the Phillippines, where the U.S. maintained military bases for a century to fuel its Pacific Fleet; others made clear that Iraq would become the new Saudi Arabia because that country could no longer afford the domestic political cost of hosting massive U.S. bases… either way, it’s clear that Bush went in planning to stay.) I’m not expecting a new strategy from Bush in the coming days; I’m expecting new tactics, and even then, the shifts will be quantitative rather than qualitative.